10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums
If you look at the typical aquarium for African cichlids it will often have a rather barren appearance. It may consist of sand and rockwork as well as fake decorations. 1) Many omnivorous and herbivorous Cichlids, like the mbunas, love to eat plants and 2) many of them enjoy digging to create spawning areas which inadvertently causes plants to be uprooted. Aquarium Co-Op loves aquarium plants for their beauty and ability to absorb excess nitrogen. We spent years searching for “cichlid-proof plants” and have spent many hours experimenting with them. Find out the top 10 plants that have survived the test of time and are compatible with African cichlids.
Aquatic plants that float at the surface are perfect because they do not grow in the ground and therefore cannot be uprooted by fish. Plus, they are known for being fast growers that suck up tons of nitrate and phosphate, helping to purify the tank water. However, many floating plants are quite tasty to mbunas and peacocks, so you have to find species that are unpalatable to fish.
Hornwort floating at the water surface
Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) is a floating plant we’ve had great success with our mbunas – the most notorious plant eaters among African cichlids. They look fluffy but their pine needle-like leaves are very tough and slightly serrated. While some African cichlids may try to nibble on them or tear off a chunk, hornwort grows so rapidly that the damage is hardly noticeable. Important to know is that hornwort can be very destructive to aquariums. It will shed its fine needles when it runs low on nutrients. See our complete care guide for more information on Hornwort.
Cabomba (Cabomba spp.) This stem plant can also be grown by floating the plant at the surface. It has a feathery appearance and is a little more delicate than hornwort, but fish seem to dislike its taste all the same. It can grow quickly if it is exposed to high levels of light. It is illegal in certain areas, including Washington and California.
Plants for Epiphyte
An epiphyte plant is another type that doesn’t require a substrate. They are often attached to rock, driftwood or other decorations to stop them being knocked around. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. A plastic container with epiphyte can be used to store it. You can then place a root tab into the rock wool, and then slide the basket inside an Easy Planter decoration. Many epiphyte plants have a rhizome (or horizontal stem), so be careful not to bury the rhizome in substrate or cover it with too much glue, or else it may begin to deteriorate.
Anubias plants are popular for their ease of use, low light requirements, and wide range of sizes. We like to recommend bigger species – such as Anubias barteri, Anubias coffeefolia, and Anubias nangi – because they have thick, hardy leaves and sturdy rhizomes that can take more of a beating.
Anubias inside an Easy Planter decoration
Java Ferns look similar to anubias due to their ease of care, low light requirements and long-lasting leaves. There are three main types: regular java, windelov (or laces) java, and narrow-leaf java. They are easy to propagate by either (1) splitting the rhizome into two halves or (2) cutting off a leaf and letting little plantlets sprout from the black dots on the leaf’s underside.
Bolbitis (Bolbitis heudelotii) is a gorgeous epiphyte with textured, vivid green leaves that can grow very large and serve as a background plant. It is also known as the African waterfern. It thrives in high-GH and pH waters that African cichlids prefer. While epiphyte plants tend to be slower than floating plants in terms of growth, bolbitis can grow into an impressive bush that could dominate even a medium-sized aquarium.
Java moos (Taxiphyllum Barbieri) is slow-growing, but tough moss. It looks stunning when attached to rocks and other driftwood. Some of the moss can be attached to a wire mesh to make a fuzzy carpet, or even a moss wall. Java moss is not like the three previous plants. It does not have roots nor a rhizome. Instead, it spreads by “sticky”, rhizoids which grip onto surfaces.
With fish that constantly dig to find food or establish spawning sites, it may seem impossible to keep plants that grow from the substrate. However, there are a few species of plants that can be kept grounded by fish that dig for food or establish spawning sites.
A forest for vallisneria
Vallisneria, one of few plants that can be grown in the wild at Lake Tanganyika, is able to tolerate higher pH and GH. Many varieties are available for sale in the hobby, including Vallisneria spiralis and its bigger cousin Vallisneria americana. This grass-like plant can grow very tall and block line of sight, which helps to reduce aggression. Plus, it proliferates quite rapidly and can transform your fish tank into an underwater jungle for your fish to weave in and out of. We like leaving the vallisneria in their original plastic pots (with a few root tabs for extra nutrients) and placing them inside an Easy Planter for extra protection. Add some Easy Green all in one fertilizer to the water. The original plant will begin to send out runners, which then spread across the substrate in a daisy-chain. Once you have a thick forest of val and the roots are firmly attached, then add the fish. This article will provide more details on setting up an African cichlid aquarium with vallisneria.
Crinum calamistratum, known as the African onion plant, is a slow-growing bulb plant that enjoys hard, alkaline water. It’s a great centerpiece plant for bigger aquariums because it has tough, crinkly leaves that can grow up to 4 feet (1.2 m) long. Place the bulb on top of the substrate, and encircle it with rocks or place it in the Easy Planter to prevent it from getting uprooted. Because the water is unfamiliar to the crinum, leaves might melt initially. The bulb will grow long, ruffled tendrils if it is kept in a low-to-medium light environment.
Amazon sword surrounded by rocks to prevent goldfish from uprooting it
Sword plants – like the Amazon sword, red flame sword, and red melon sword – get the nickname of “tank busters” because they have large, broad leaves and extensive roots that can grow to take over an entire medium-sized aquarium. Because they have a strong root system, they can survive being cut down as long as the plants are established before adding African Cichlids. While melting might occur at first when the plant is introduced to an aquarium’s water, this will quickly disappear if you give it lots of root tabs or nutrients. Instead of using the Easy Planter, we prefer a barrier of rockwork or decorations so they can be easily moved as the plant grows bigger and bigger.
If your cichlids are determined to eat every bit of plant they can find, you should consider growing emersed plants outside the tank.
We have grown all the plants with their leaves above water and their roots below water. The aquarium allows the plants to draw nutrients and keeps the leaves safe from hungry fish. Most of the time, the fish seem to leave the roots alone, but if they keep nibbling on them, consider placing the plant in a hang-on-back filter or a plant basket that hooks onto the aquarium rim.
Pothos leaves sprouting roots in water without substrate
These “cichlid-proof plants” are not guaranteed to work. However, we hope they will be useful in African cichlid aquariums. Smaller cichlids are often less destructive than larger ones, so check out our list of top 10 cichlids we love to keep in a 29-gallon fish tank.